As someone who has spent a long time paying attention to the Iowa Caucuses, I have discounted a lot of ritual Iowa-bashing, but suspect the latest move against its privileged status in the presidential nominating process is real, and I wrote about that at New York.
The Iowa Caucuses have been the first stop on the road to the White House since the early 1970s, and efforts to strip the state of its privileged place are just about as old. Over the years, Iowa has protected its privileged status by linking arms with New Hampshire, which holds the first-in-the-nation primary, and by going along with a 2004 expansion of the group of “protected” early states to include two more-diverse states, Nevada and South Carolina.
But hatred of the Iowa event — some born of envy over the money and media attention the caucus attracts, and some related to Iowa’s very white demographics and its arcane and not terribly well-attended caucus system — kept building up like barnacles on a rusty boat. Then Iowa appeared to create a huge opening for its disparagers in 2020, when its Democratic caucuses collapsed under the burden of national party-reporting mandates, questionable technology, and a rickety infrastructure of volunteer labor. The state party could not report results at all on Caucus Night, and TV talking heads denied anything on which to pontificate furiously condemned Iowa, joining the long-standing criticism of its primacy.
Then a pandemic and a wild presidential election culminating in an attempted coup intervened; suddenly, Democrats had much more important things to worry about than hating on the Iowa Caucuses. It began to look like the furor over what happened on February 2, 2020, might fade before the next presidential cycle. The odds of some seismic change in the nominating process were also reduced by Republicans’ happiness with the status quo, since any move to a state-financed primary and/or coordination of calendar dates for nominating events required bipartisan cooperation.
But now it appears the desire for a “reformed” Democratic presidential nominating process has gotten a second wind. Indeed, there is an emerging plan for dumping Iowa, as the Des Moines Register reported last week:
“National Democratic leaders have drafted a proposal that could significantly reshape the party’s presidential nominating process and put an end to Iowa’s prized first-in-the-nation caucuses …
“A draft resolution, obtained and corroborated by the Des Moines Register, would set new criteria for early-voting states that favor primaries over caucuses and diversity over tradition.”
The idea is to eliminate entirely the current system whereby four “early states” are in the privileged window at the beginning of the nominating calendar. Instead, states would have to reapply for the privilege under criteria Iowa cannot possibly satisfy: the ability to run a “fair, transparent and inclusive primary” (not possible without action by the Republican-controlled state legislature); demographic diversity (Iowa is 90 percent white); and general-election competitiveness (the state has veered hard red during the last two presidential elections, and all but one member of its congressional delegation are Republicans). This is like everyone on a president’s Cabinet or corporate board being forced to resign so one miscreant can be fired. Yes, New Hampshire might experience some heartburn under these criteria, but it is a very competitive state and obviously already has a primary. More to the point, New Hampshire has a state law, fiercely and equally supported by both parties in the Granite State, that requires the secretary of State to move the primary as far back as possible to maintain its first-in-the-nation status.
So the draft proposal is clearly designed to be a “solution” to the Iowa “problem.” It was discussed at a March 11 meeting of the Democratic National Committee panel that is responsible for the nominating process, as the Washington Post reported: “The meeting of the Democratic National Committee’s Rules and Bylaws Committee came to no final decisions, but for the second time this year, a majority of speakers made clear their openness to shaking up the presidential primary calendar to better reflect what speakers described as the party’s values.”
The Rules and Bylaws Committee is tentatively planning on formally announcing the new criteria for early-state status next month. We’ll soon see how much pushback the anti-Iowa advocates encounter, and whether they have the appetite to fight and win.
Since it is very unlikely that the Iowa legislature’s ruling Republicans will accommodate some shift to a taxpayer-financed primary in order to boost the state Democratic contest’s chances for survival, the hostile move would leave Iowa Democrats with limited and unsatisfactory options. This would include keeping their current caucus event but moving it to later in the calendar, which would greatly diminish its significance; or holding a party-paid and -sponsored “firehouse primary” (so called because they typically utilize cheap or free public facilities like firehouses for their limited polling places), which might not satisfy Iowa-haters anyway.
Iowa has overcome the haters time and again, but this may represent its biggest challenge.